Tag Archives: ingenuity

NASA’s Mars helicopter is doing so well its mission is extended indefinitely

It was only meant to be a proof of concept; a test of what could be possible. Ingenuity has proven itself to be more than worthy, and NASA researchers have now rewarded its success with more work — such is the life of a Mars explorer.

Ingenuity on Mars at Wright Brothers Field, photographed by Perseverance. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover. NASA envisions that one day, rover/helicopter duos could be the norm of planetary exploration, but that day seemed far away. Now, it doesn’t seem far at all.

The problem with flying a helicopter on a planet like Mars is that its atmosphere (if you can call it that) is 100 times thinner than what we have on Earth, which makes flying way more difficult. When Ingenuity powered itself up over the Martian soil, it was a real Wright brothers moment — the first man-made vehicle to fly on a planet other than the Earth.

If Ingenuity had crashed on its second flight, it probably wouldn’t even have been all that bad. After all, its main goal was to fly up to five times, at altitudes no higher than 5 meters, for 90 seconds each. Now, after 12 flights in which the helicopter rose to a height of 12 m (39 ft), achieved all its objectives and gathered all the information it was meant to, NASA has finally extended its mission indefinitely.

Ingenuity after its 7th flight. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

“Everything is working so well,” said Josh Ravich, the head of Ingenuity’s mechanical engineering team. “We’re doing better on the surface than we had expected.”

Ingenuity has been now switched to a new operations demonstration phase, showcasing how rovers and aerial explorers can work together. After a series of roundtrip flights, Ingenuity has been embarking on a series of one-way trips, accompanying the Perseverance rover as it explores Mars, surveying and taking photos from above. Overall, the helicopter has flown 2.83 km (1.76 mi) and shows no signs of stopping soon.

This annotated image depicts the ground tracks of NASA’s Perseverance rover (white) and Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (green) since arriving on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021. The green dots represent the locations of the helicopter’s airfields during the 11 flights it has made between April 19 and Aug. 4.

Surveying Mars from above is more than just a show of strength — it’s already paying dividends. For instance, flights taken by Ingenuity during its 12th flight showed that one region on Mars (dubbed South Seitha) was not as interesting as researchers were hoping for. As a result, the rover may choose a different path and focus on exploring other regions.

Now, the Ingenuity team plans to make one flight every 2-3 weeks, as long as conditions remain favorable. So far, everything went according to plan, but at some point in October, all operations will need to be shut down, as Mars passes behind the Sun, blocking communications. If the helicopter is able to withstand this period and is responsive after it’s turned back on, the mission will resume.

Since the mission went so well, NASA is already looking at bigger helicopters carrying a bigger payload for future missions. No doubt, Ingenuity was amazing on its own — but it has also paved the way for some amazing science in the future.

Meanwhile, Perseverance is also carrying its own weight. After a botched first try, the rover managed to extract a rock sample from Mars, a sample that is set to return to Earth for analysis by 2031.

All in all, these are great times for Mars exploration. Who knows, maybe a space race is slowly starting to kick off.

Ingenuity has flown a full mile over Mars, and broken its altitude record

With its 10th flight on Mars completed just yesterday, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has now flown more than a mile through the skies of our red neighbor.

Illustration of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Image credits GPA Photo Archive / Flickr.

In a Twitter post on Sunday, NASA confirmed that Ingenuity flew over the “Raised Ridges”, part of a fracture system inside Jezero Crater that researchers have been looking to investigate for some time now. These fractures can act as pathways for fluids underground so, if there’s water on Mars (or if there was water on Mars), these fractures would hold signs of its passing. This marked the 10th flight for the helicopter drone, and its first full mile over Mars.

Humble beginnings

“With the Mars Helicopter’s flight success today, we crossed its 1-mile total distance flown to date,” officials with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California wrote in an Instagram update late Saturday. JPL is home to the mission control for Perseverance and Ingenuity.

In an earlier Tweet, Ingenuity operations lead Teddy Tzanetos described the planned flight in a status update, calling it the most complex mission the drone has undergone so far, in terms of both navigation and performance. The helicopter was sent to investigate (fly over and photograph) 10 sites, with the mission estimated to last around 165 seconds.

Although the full details of the mission haven’t been published yet, Tzanetos explained on Friday that it would be taking off from its sixth airfield and then moving south-by-southwest about 165 feet (50 meters). From there, it was scheduled to take two pictures of Raised Ridges from two different angles, both looking south. From there, Ingenuity was scheduled to fly west and then northwest, to snap further images of the Raised Ridges area. These will be used by NASA to create stereo images of the area.

What we do know is that during the flight, Ingenuity achieved a new record height: 40 feet (12 meters) above ground.

Ingenuity was meant to operate on mars for around 30 days; it has now been hard at work for 107. It went well beyond its duties during this time, allowing ground control to test out several flight maneuvers and undergoing two software updates — one to improve its flight speed, the other to refine its camera’s color-capturing abilities. To date, it’s flown for 14 minutes on Mars, which is a bit over 112% the performance target used for tech demos back on Earth.

Still, it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Since it’s running on solar panels, fuel isn’t a concern, and NASA has already extended its operations once (after Ingenuity completed its primary mission in April). We’re likely to see a similar extension in the future, as the craft is providing invaluable reconnaissance from the skies of Mars.

Flying on Mars: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is the gift that keeps on giving

A nail-biter of a flight saw Ingenuity take to the Martian skies for 166.4 seconds and reaching a maximum speed of 5 m/s (or 10 mph, the speed of a brisk run). During this flight, Ingenuity covered about 625 meters (2,050 feet), showcasing the advantages that flight missions can offer for exploring new planets.

Image credits: NASA.

NASA’s Mars helicopter Ingenuity is the first aircraft ever to fly on a celestial body other than the Earth. Ingenuity was only meant to serve as a proof of concept, showing that flight on Mars (in a thin, rarefied atmosphere) can be done. It was only meant to carry out three flights as a proof of concept — but now, Ingenuity just completed its ninth flight, and a daring one at that.

For its latest flight, Ingenuity flew from the Perseverance rover, taking a shortcut to the Séítah region (meaning “amidst the sand” in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language). Séítah is interesting to researchers but is difficult to cover by land due to its sandy ripples. Flying Ingenuity over the area was a risk and NASA acknowledged it was pushing the vehicle past its limits — but the risk paid off.

An image of Ingenuity’s shadow captured by the helicopter itself. Image credits: NASA.

Flying across the Martian dunes 183 million miles from the Earth, Ingenuity clearly showed its worth, not just by exploring otherwise inaccessible terrain, but also through the distance it covered on Mars.

The distance covered by Ingenuity in this single flight is comparable to what the Spirit rover has explored in its entire mission on the Red Planet.

“We believe Ingenuity is ready for the challenge, based on the resilience and robustness demonstrated in our flights so far,” NASA said in a press release. “Second, this high-risk, high-reward attempt fits perfectly within the goals of our current operational demonstration phase. A successful flight would be a powerful demonstration of the capability that an aerial vehicle, and only an aerial vehicle, can bring to bear in the context of Mars exploration.”

Until now, Ingenuity has kept close to its terrestrial exploration partner — the Perseverance rover. This is the main operation NASA is looking at (the ability of a flying craft to accompany an extraterrestrial rover) but Ingenuity is increasingly showing that it can do a lot of things on its own.

Ingenuity helicopter flight path and Perseverance traverse path showing their locations as of July 7, 2021. Live NASA link here.

The flight was a nerve-wracking one, though. Ingenuity’s navigation system wasn’t meant to deal with this type of fluctuating topography, so the team had to work around this difficulty.

In the end, although NASA hasn’t released any data from the flight, the mission proved to be a success. Not only did Ingenuity manage to take photos of previously unexplored terrain, but it also showed that its operational limits can be stretched even further. We have likely not seen the full range of what the brave little helicopter can accomplish.

NASA’s space helicopter is one month away from landing on Mars

Did you ever dare to dream of the day you’d see a helicopter in space? Well, rest easy, your watch has come to an end — NASA’s Ingenuity, the “Mars Helicopter”, is one month away from touching down on the red planet.

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the vehicle on Feb. 1, 2019.

Ingenuity is currently onboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, the US’ latest Mars-bound rover. It’s the first American mission to Mars since 2018’s InSight, but it was only one of three missions sent out to Mars in 2020 alongside the UAE’s Hope orbiter and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander, and rover.

While all of them are very exciting, Ingenuity will be the first helicopter to actually be sent to space, ever. NASA is expecting it to touch down on Mars on February 18.

Flying on new horizons

“NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight,” NASA explains in a press kit. “If its experimental flight test program succeeds, the data returned could benefit future explorations of the Red Planet – including those by astronauts – by adding the aerial dimension, which is not available today.”

The helicopter is pretty small, similar to a medium-large commercial drone, and comes equipped with two carbon-fiber rotors. These will spin at around 2,400 rpm in different directions so as to stabilize the craft in flight. That speed of rotation is many times faster than those used by passenger helicopters on Earth, due to their smaller size and Mars‘ thinner atmosphere both. Since the air is thinner there, rotors have to put in a lot of extra work to generate the same lift they would produce on our planet.

If all goes well, Ingenuity could completely change how we explore Mars, and other planets with atmospheres. Up to now we’ve been using rovers, which have quite a few benefits (ground vehicles have great energy efficiency since they don’t need to stay aloft, and weight is much less of an issue, for example). However, they’re also much slower than any other vehicles in general, as they have to contend with terrain features. If Ingenuity manages to do its job, and do it well — and, especially, if it can withstand Mars’ harsh environment — space helicopters will definitely become much more common in the future.

But until then, Perseverance still needs to reach its target, and Ingenuity still needs to prove it can fly on Mars. Fingers crossed.

So what is the Mars Sample Return mission exactly?

The Mars Sample Return Campaign is an effort to bring samples of Martian rocks and soil back to Earth (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

If everything goes well, Martian rocks will hypersonically pancake themselves into the Utah desert.

But first, lets start from the beginning.

When Swati Mohan was in the third grade, the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation changed her life. One episode, in particular, displayed an artist’s rendition of everything space had to offer – stars, nebulas, and galaxies. From that moment on, she knew she had to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Now, years later, she is one of the primary actors in a project which could potentially change how we look at Mars, and space in general. From that third-grader, she has risen to become the lead of Guidance, Navigation, and Control Operations for the Perseverance Rover.

The Volvo-sized Perseverance (aka the 2020 Rover) and her sidekick, the helicopter Ingenuity, are the first stages of NASA’s sample return project. If all goes as planned, the duo will be landing at the Jezero Crater in February 2021.

Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Between three to four billion years ago, a river there flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments packed with carbonite minerals and clay. The Perseverance science team believes this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

“So the mission can be thought of in three separate phases,” Mohan told ZME Science. “One is launch cruise that’s getting from the surface of the Earth to Mars. The second phase is Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) from basically the top of Mars all the way down to the surface of the ground safely. The third mission is the surface mission. The actual portion where we drive around and do science is so complicated that in each of those phases there are separate missions, separate vehicles with all different hardware and software that goes along with it. You can think of it as each one of those phases has the complexity of a whole mission in it of itself.”

The returned samples have the potential to “change our understanding of the origin, evolution and distribution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a July 28 news conference.

If successful, the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign will bring samples of Martian rocks and soil back to Earth, where they can be investigated in detail, using all the capabilities of terrestrial laboratories. The return program is part of an even larger Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Martian planet.

Perseverance

Credit: NASA/JPL.

The nuclear-powered Perseverance is the first rover to bring a caching system to Mars that will package samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Rather than pulverizing rock the way Curiosity‘s drill does, Perseverance’s drill will cut intact rock cores that are about the size of a piece of chalk and will place them in sample tubes that it will store until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location.

Built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the rover is loaded with all sorts of scientific instruments, advanced computational capabilities for landing and other new systems. With a chassis about 10 feet (3 meters) long, Perseverance is also the largest, heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has ever built.

The demanding science goal requested of the rover requires a new suite of instruments to tackle the question from many angles. While, at first glance, it may look like Perseverance wears the same uniform as Curiosity, it does contain a few improvements.

“Perseverance actually takes a lot of heritage from the Curiosity rover,” said Mohan. “The cruise stage that we’re flying is very similar. The EDL system is very similar. We’ve made some upgrades to Perseverance in order to improve our entry, descent and landing performance. And the rover shares the same kind of fundamental structure and body but it has all new set of instruments that are geared for searching for biosignatures.”

Among the technologies aboard Perseverance mission is the rover’s Terrain-Relative Navigation system (TRN). Part of the landing system, TRN is the primary reason Perseverance can explore a place like Jezero. It will enable the rover to quickly and autonomously comprehend its location over the surface and modify its trajectory during descent. This will be able to provide invaluable assistance for both robotic and crewed missions landing on the Moon and is a must for future robotic and crewed exploration of Mars.

Engineers have also given Perseverance more self-driving smarts than any other rover, allowing it to traverse more ground in a day’s operations without having to wait for engineers on our home planet to send up instructions. Calculated over the length of the mission, this lack of turn-around time will translate into more science.

The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, which can detect organic matter, and the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which measures the composition of rocks and soil, will allow Perseverance to map organic matter, chemical composition and texture together at a higher level of detail than any Mars rover has done before. These instruments — two of the seven total onboard — will play a particularly important role in Perseverance’s search for potential signs of life.

Perseverance also carries a technology demonstration coined the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment — or MOXI, because what is science without a good acronym. This instrument will produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere, demonstrating a way that future explorers might produce oxygen for rocket propellant as well as for breathing. The Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA) was also created with future human exploration in mind. MEDA will provide information about the current martian weather and climate, as well as the nature of the dust on the surface. The Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation 2 (MEDLI2) package, a next-generation version of what flew on the Mars Science Laboratory mission that delivered the Curiosity rover, was also geared for future human exploration in mind, providing data about the entry and descent of the spacecraft through the atmosphere.

At one time, cameras were considered a waste of space on planetary explorers. Who would want to see images when there was so much science which could take up that space on the vessel. Thank God, those arguments have past for those of us who like to visually see the planetary landscapes (and for those of us who might want Martian backgrounds on their computer desktop…not naming names).

Perseverance is carrying the most cameras in any craft in the history of interplanetary exploration. The rover has 19 cameras that will deliver images of the landscape. The other parts of the spacecraft involved in EDL carry four additional cameras, potentially allowing engineers to put together a high-definition view of the landing process after the rover safely touches down on Mars.

Ingenuity

In this illustration, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet’s surface as NASA’s Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

And what is a superhero without its trusty sidekick.

For Vaneeza Rupani, a high-school student in Northport, Alabama, second place didn’t turn out to be that bad. Rupani originally submitted the name Ingenuity for the Mars 2020 rover, before it was named Perseverance, but NASA officials recognized the submission as a terrific name for the helicopter, given how much creative thinking the team employed to get the mission off the ground so to speak. 

“The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration,” Rupani wrote. “Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things.”

“It’s super cool,” said Mohan of Ingenuity. “The Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 had a little rover called Sojourner and it was not even the size of a cereal box, and it was an add-on. That rover is the genesis of how we have the Perseverance rover now and all this complexity and capability so it’s super exciting that we’re taking that next step with ingenuity to do the first powered flight.”

Ingenuity is what is known as a technology demonstration – a project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time, with limited scope. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the tiny Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.

Ingenuity features four specially made carbon-fiber blades, arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 revolutions per minute – many times faster than a passenger helicopter on Earth. It also has innovative solar cells, batteries and other components. However, the little chopper doesn’t carry science instruments and is a separate experiment from Perseverance.

Because the Mars atmosphere is 99 percent less dense than ours, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass here on Earth.

Temps are another experiment with the little ‘copter. Nights at Jezro dip down much cooler than cardigan weather at minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius). While Ingenuity’s team on Earth tested the helicopter at Martian temperatures and believes it should work on Mars as intended, the cold will push the design limits of many of Ingenuity’s parts.

In addition, flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. Like all our Martian rovers, commands will need to be sent well in advance, with engineering data coming back from the spacecraft long after each flight takes place. In the meantime, Ingenuity will have a lot of autonomy to make its own decisions about how to fly to a waypoint and keep itself warm.

NASA officials say that Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles which might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They are hoping what is learned through a helicopter could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.

“The Ingenuity team has done everything to test the helicopter on Earth, and we are looking forward to flying our experiment in the real environment at Mars,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL. “We’ll be learning all along the way, and it will be the ultimate reward for our team to be able to add another dimension to the way we explore other worlds in the future.”

Sample Return Mission

The ultimate dream for those interested in space science is finding life on another planet. That starts with sample return missions. Perseverance is that first step.

Three launches will be necessary to accomplish landing, collecting, storing and finding samples and delivering them to Earth.

Once soil samples are collected by the rover, it will deposit samples in tubes at select locations, called depots, which will be collected at a later date by the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter.

“The lander goes, lands near one of these depots, and collects the samples which have been placed on the surface,” explained Dave Spencer, the Mars Sample Return Campaign Mission Manager at JPL, in an interview. “The lander has a European rover onboard, called the sample fetch rover. This rover will be placed on the surface we’ll go out and grab the samples from this depot, bring it back to the lander and put them in an orbiting sample container, which is basically a soccer ball sized container, then put into the Mars Ascent Vehicle on the lander, that can launch it up into Mars orbit.”

Illustration of Mars Sample Return process (Credit: ESA)

As currently envisioned, the lander that will gather the samples launches in 2026 and arrives at Mars in 2028, touching down close to the Mars 2020 rover near Jezero Crater. It deposits the fetch rover to pick up the stashed samples and transfer them to the rocket. Another option is for the Mars 2020 rover to retain some of its collected samples onboard and deliver those samples directly to the rocket. The rocket would then become the first ever to launch off another planet, transporting the sample return container into orbit around Mars.

“We also designed it so that the Mars 2020 rover, assuming it’s still alive, if it’s still got more samples onboard, it can come up and provide samples to be loaded into the orbiting sample container as well,” said Spencer. “So we can receive samples from either the fetch rover or the 2020 rover.”

That’s where a separate orbiting spacecraft, provided by ESA and also launched from Earth in 2026, would rendezvous with the sample return container and ferry it back to Earth.

A NASA-provided payload on the orbiter would provide the capabilities needed to capture and contain the samples, placing them in an Earth entry vehicle that would land the samples safely on U.S. soil.

Spencer explains:

“So now we’ve got this orbiting sample container, the soccer ball-sized container that’s been delivered by this Mars ascent vehicle into Mars orbit. And it’s going to be up at around 300 kilometers (186 miles) of altitude above the surface of Mars. And the European orbiter, this Earth Return Orbiter is going to go up and autonomously rendezvous and capture this orbiting sample container. And once it captures, there’s a big canister basketball hoop basically, that we steer the vehicle such that the orbiting sample contains canister goes into this basketball hoop, close the door on and capture it and then very carefully put it through a robotic process.”

The canister will contain all of the materials inside the orbiting sample container. However, scientists need to be careful not to return any uncontained material back into the Earth’s biosphere, such as dust on the canister. In order to keep this from occurring, the capsule contains a redundant containment system where the engineers put a containment vessel around the orbiting sample canister, and then turn around and put that unit into another containment vessel.

“Now we’ve got this enclosed set of samples and we put them into an earth Earth entry vehicle that gets delivered back to Earth. It’s then on put on an impact trajectory, so it’s actually going to crash land in Utah. And it comes in directly from the interplanetary trajectory. So it’s going to be coming in at hyper-sonic speeds through the Earth’s atmosphere and impact in the mudflats at a place called the Utah test and training rage.”

And then if all goes well, it will be recovered intact.

And if all goes better, we will make some amazing discoveries. Hopefully, discoveries that will propel us to search for sample returns on further bodies in the future.

As Alex Mather of Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia, eloquently wrote in his winning essay naming the Perseverance rover, “We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as humans, will not give up.”